The late firecracker MC gets his due in a worshipful eulogy.
For a time in the early ’90s, that loose collective of kung-fu–inspired rappers known as the Wu-Tang Clan was pretty much the best thing going in hip-hop, and the most dynamic member of the clan was Russell Jones, aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard, aka Dirt McGirt. In writing the story of ODB’s chaotic life and career, freelance journalist Lowe initially overdoes it, showing herself to be too ardent a fan. A self-described “middle-class Jew who grew up on Madonna and musical theater in West L.A.,” she writes that her interest in ODB’s morphing persona and verbal dexterities “started as a curiosity and as social currency” but later turned into a full-bore obsession. The narrative does a decent job covering ODB’s childhood in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and his early ascension as part of the Wu-Tang Clan’s revolutionary attack on the music world. Then it becomes as messy as ODB’s life when he spun out of control later in the ’90s, with overlapping story lines about his mental illnesses, addictions and jail time, all spiraling down to his too-early but sadly predictable death from heart failure (later ruled the result of an accidental drug overdose). Although Lowe displays an exemplary knowledge of hip-hop and ODB’s place within it, she also blows her own profile as a fan out of proportion so that, perversely, her subject shades into the background. At times, the middle-class author gets in over her head, as when she criticizes pop-rappers like Will Smith for being “so seriously deaf to street semantics.” However, Lowe’s strong and quite welcome vein of generosity toward her subject is winning in the end, particularly in describing the tragedy of a life that collapsed so spectacularly and so publicly, with few of his fans and enablers doing anything to stop it.
Rousing and well-informed, though a bit too impressed with itself.